Joel Johnsson won the Osprey Adventure Grant by letting the imaginings of his childhood run wild, resulting in an incredible and heart-warming adventure. Prioritising fun and whimsy over the demands of adult life, he and his friends built a homemade houseboat raft and spent five days floating down a NSW river in tune with the tide.

Travels By Tide // A Modern Day Huck Finn Adventure Joel Johnsson, raft, crew, friends, trees, river

Do you remember when you were young, and the world stretched out before you like a technicolour patchwork of dreams and possibility? When you were sure you were going to live in a treehouse (no, in a tree village), and build secret underwater hideouts, and start a zoo, and possibly fund expeditions to discover ancient civilisations in remote jungles, and live out all the adventures of books and stories…

Well, unless you’re Elon Musk, the world has a way of quickly teaching you that there are limitations to those dreams: physical limitations, technological limitations, financial limitations.

The thing is, those aren’t the limitations that actually stop us from making our childhood dreams reality. The ones that stop us are much more mundane. A lot of the time, it’s convenience, responsibilities, what other people will think. And most often… Time.

The pace of life seems to increase with every passing year after those long summers of childhood have slipped by, like a glacier that melts into a raging river. Time drips through the cracks between endless meetings and appointments, pools at every extra stop on public transport and drains away every minute that you sit stuck in traffic – always flowing away from us.

The funny thing is, time disappears when you’re on a raft. Only here do you realise that time is tidal. And here – in these moments, hours, days, weeks – it floods back to you, washing over all those concerns which occupied so much of your life before.

 

“It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened… Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”

― Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

For me, the adventures of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer represent that sense of freedom and wonder most brightly – lazy days spent floating down a river, exploring the surrounding countryside, and generally getting into mischief.

Building Our Dreams

So, we set about building a raft. She’s fourteen square metres of ply and pine. She has an upper sun deck, covered in pillows and carpet, which spans half of the lower deck, while shade-cloth covers the rest and acts as a makeshift sail when the wind blows directly from behind. Hammocks and tiki torches are lashed to each post, and the BBQ, eskys and Osprey gear bags weigh down the back end.

Travels By Tide // A Modern Day Huck Finn Adventure Joel Johnsson, raft, barbecue, floating, woman, kayak

She’s floated by twelve 220L plastic drums sealed tight with silicone, though the back left one has sprung a leak as I write this. Weight distribution is paramount. We built her in a day, on a small beach which washes away at high tide, in the upper reaches of the Clyde River on the NSW South Coast. We think it will take us five days to reach the coast.

River People

Each day passes much the same. We rise early in the morning to catch the end of the run-out tide, stowing away our sleeping bags and dipping paddles into the still surface. By mid-morning, the tide slackens and stops, before gently rolling back in the other direction.

Travels By Tide // A Modern Day Huck Finn Adventure Joel Johnsson, raft, man, woman, river, view, mist

From the bottom of the tide, when the direction swings opposite to the way we want to travel, we have six hours to swim, read, fish, mend or simply laze in a hammock. Moored in the middle of the river, hanging off our two anchors, we drift amongst huge clouds of jellyfish, which float languidly up-river. From the top deck, we see seals and dolphins blowing on the surface, and white-bellied sea eagles slide across the sky.

Travels By Tide // A Modern Day Huck Finn Adventure Joel Johnsson, raft, sleeping bag, woman, hat

At nights, we sleep on the raft, drifting under a sea of stars, or tie off to one of the islands and have a fire on the beach. If we pitch a tent and sleep on hard ground, every time we close our eyes we can still feel the rock of the raft – sea legs after only three days. The raft, aglow with tiki torches and fairy lights, floats softly nearby like a jaunty Louisiana crab shack. We are river people now.

Travels By Tide // A Modern Day Huck Finn Adventure Joel Johnsson, fire, raft, camp, friends

Fishermen and oyster farmers roar past in tinnies and runabouts, and all stop and stare – they seem to forget that, at a distance, their voices carry over the sound of their engine.

“Don’t see that everyday!” “Now that’s a houseboat – homemade!”

The tourist boat which plies the river slows as it passes and the operator shouts

“Where can I get one of those?”

We reply “It’s custom!” and for the rest of the time we’re on the river, they come and check our progress daily.

Go With The Flow

On the raft, the tide is an immovable force. Though we each have a paddle, they only provide the vague illusion of steering – all our momentum comes from the ebb and flow of the tide. When the wind and the tide both flow in the right direction, it’s magic. We pull down the front shade-sail to catch the wind and soar down the river, sliding across the water like it’s ice. More often, when they work in opposition, it’s a struggle – we paddle furiously for little reward or throw out the anchors and drift in circles as the wind and tide each take their turn.

Most days it feels like we’ve hardly moved at all. We might make a couple of kilometres if conditions are right – if not, a couple of hundred metres.

Sometimes, after hunkering down with nowhere to escape from the wind in the middle of the river, we give up, pull the anchors and retreat to the lee of an island, loosing precious distance. But there’s something very satisfying about surrendering your life over to the tide.

Travels By Tide // A Modern Day Huck Finn Adventure Joel Johnsson, captain, raft, basket, flag

In everyday life, when there’s so many things we could, or should, be doing, we can’t just relax and enjoy doing nothing. There’s the guilt of missing out, of wasting time, of not being ‘productive’. Maximise your free time. On the raft, all that evaporates. You can’t learn French, take up pottery, try that new Tabata class at the gym or scale the mountain of emails that looms in your inbox. You just have to sit and watch the world float past. Maybe take a swim when you’re hot.

And just breathe.

Bateman’s Bay

But inexorably, we progress, and with a few good tides, suddenly we’re within spitting distance of the giant gates of the Batemans Bay bridge that mark the end of our journey. We had no idea of how fast a raft would move, if at all, but we seem to be here, in line and on time. Suddenly, we need to think about what to do with the raft. We built it in a day, but it seems like it will take at least as long to take it apart. There’s talk of a chainsaw. It all seems quite brutal. But we’ve built quite a following on the river, so we decide to put it up on Gumtree to see if anyone wants it. I type the ad from the top sun deck:

Within two hours, we have a reply.

“We saw you on the river a couple of days back near Nelligen. Would love to take it off your hands. I have a boat and can tow it to a mate’s place in Batemans Bay.”

So we arranged to meet at the boat ramp under the bridge in the morning.

That evening, a storm blew up, and we slept under tarps. An eerie fog swirled across the surface as we slipped the moorings and paddled for Bateman’s Bay. The tide was weak, and the wind was blowing us sideways more than helping. As we rounded the final corner, there were boats moored everywhere; not great for a vessel with the steerage of a piece of driftwood. We weren’t going to make it to the boat ramp after all – I baulked at a million-dollar damage bill and we headed for the far bank with the wind.

Where We Were Meant To Be

A man was standing on a jetty, watching us struggle not to destroy anything expensive. He shouted to us:

“Bring her in here!” A friendly face. “In all my years on the river, I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

We tied up to the boatshed jetty and began to unload. The boss of the boat shed arrived (he’d heard of us too), and finally the new owner from Gumtree. It turns out, the raft’s new owner and the boat shed boss knew each other – in fact, he’d planned on towing the raft here after he picked it up from us. So as it turns out, of all the places we could have landed, we ended up exactly where we needed to be.

We pack our gear and pile into the cars for a celebratory lunch.

Back To Reality

But the tide washes back, and in no time we’re caught up in the current of daily life. Deadlines, schedules, and copious amounts of washing. How much did we each spend? Photo editing… so much of it.

Everyone wants to hear about the trip; even a brief description sparks that sense of childlike wonder in them. No time to tell the whole story though. We’ll just have to give you the abridged version.

“Soon as it was night, out we shoved; when we got her out to about the middle we let her alone, and let her float wherever the current wanted her to; then we lit the pipes, and dangled our legs in the water, and talked about all kinds of things…”

― Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

It’s a sin that we dream the dreams of wildest adventure when we are young but only receive the tools to make them reality as adults, when the world has lost a little of its lustre. Children see the world through eyes undimmed by stress and cynicism – the wonder and the magic shine bright on the plans of young adventurers. But as adults, living in an age where bad news is good news, we often focus on the opposite – What if it goes wrong? What will people think? What if I fail? What if I’m wasting my time?

Well, here we stand, with paddles in hand, making a case for a little more childish wonder in the world.

Ask why not, instead of why. Prioritise enjoyment over efficiency, style over speed, and wonder over worry. Be the ones who stoke the dreams and imaginations of young adventurers.

Twelve barrels. Four posts. Assorted ply and pine. Screws, nails and strapping. These are the tools of pure imagination.


 

Special thanks to We Are Explorers and Osprey for providing grant funding to help us out with the costs of building the raft and great bags to hold our gear as we drifted downstream. If you’re interested, it cost us just over $1000 for the whole adventure. Fastenings (nails, screws, strapping etc) are surprisingly expensive, but junkyards are a great place to find everything else you need. We spent around $250 on the barrels (old olive drums), $100 at the junkyards, $400 on wood and fastenings and $350 on food and beer for four people for 6 days. If you’re ever in Batemans Bay, drop into Clyde River Houseboats, they’re good people!

More playful adventures…

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A Guide to Delusional Optimism (I Skateboarded across Australia)

The Twins who Flew to the Australian Red Pole

Why I Wake Up At 2am, Every Weekend